Category Archives: Timothy Hallinan

Everything Has Got a Little Price*

Witnesses and suspects don’t always want to give police information they may have. There are many reasons for that – more than there is space for in this one post. So, I’ll just focus on one: a witness or suspect may want to get something out of any agreement to give information. In other words, information is a commodity to be traded.

Detectives (well, at least fictional ones) make all sorts of arrangements with sources of information. Some are formal, as in cases where a suspect makes a plea bargain to give information in order to get a reduced sentence. A lot, though, are less formal (e.g. ‘You know, I’d really love a beer right about now.’) And we see them all through crime fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker. On the surface of it, there seems no reason for anyone to kill her, so this isn’t going to be an easy case. As a part of the investigation, Poirot visits the Tucker family, where he speaks with her parents. As he’s leaving the house, he has a conversation with Marlene’s younger sister, Marilyn. Among other things, she tells Poirot that Marlene had extra money to buy things she wanted. Here’s what happens next:

“Tell me, how did Marlene get the money to buy these things?’
Marilyn looked with close attention at a drainpipe.
‘Dunno,’ she muttered.
‘I think you do know,’ said Poirot.
Shamelessly he drew out a half-crown from his pocket and added another half-crown to it.
‘I believe,’ he said, ‘there is a new, very attractive shade of lipstick called ‘Carmine Kiss.'”
‘Sounds smashing,’ said Marilyn, her hand advanced towards the five shillings.’

With this ‘agreement’ made, Marilyn tells Poirot what she knows about Marlene’s source of money, and it helps in solving this case.

In Michael Connelly’s Echo Park, Raynard Waits is arrested for two brutal murders. There’s no question that he’s guilty, as he was caught with the grisly evidence of what he’d done. Now, he’s in prison facing execution. He offers to trade the police information on other cases in exchange for his sentence being commuted to life in prison. One of those cases is the disappearance of Marie Gesto, who walked out of a Hollywood supermarket one day, and never made it back home. LAPD detective Harry Bosch investigated the Gesto case but was never able to get the evidence he needed to go after the right suspect. He’s always felt guilty about the fact that he didn’t solve the case, so he decides to work with Waits.

In Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lamb, the FBI is looking for a killer they’ve nicknamed ‘Buffalo Bill,’ and they think they have a way to find him. His former psychiatrist is Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and he could provide very helpful information. But Lecter is imprisoned in the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane. And he’s there for very good reasons. FBI trainee Clarice Starling is chosen to go to the hospital and try to get Lecter to help with the investigation. She’s by no means universally accepted as the right choice, but she visits Lecter. He agrees to help the FBI, but he asks a high price. For everything he tells Starling, she must reveal a personal secret. It’s a risky psychological undertaking, and it doesn’t help matters that there’s a killer out there. But Starling goes through with the agreement. And the ‘cat and mouse’ game between her and Lecter adds to the tension in the novel.

Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo features journalist Mikael Blomqvist. In one plot thread, he’s been successfully sued for libel by Swedish industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström. With his magazine, Millennium, in danger of folding, Blomqvist needs financial support. Then, he gets a very tempting offer from Henrik Vanger, who’s also been very successful. Vanger offers to give Blomqvist information that will bring down Wennerström and put Millennium back on solid financial ground. In return for that information, he wants Blomqvist to solve the forty-year-old disappearance of his grand-niece, Harriet. It’s not going to be an easy task, since so much time has passed. And several people who might know something are unwilling to talk. But Blomqvist agrees to the deal, and he and his research assistant, Lisbeth Salander, look into the case.

And then there’s Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart. In it, we meet Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty, an ex-pat American who’s now living in Bangkok. He makes his living as a rough travel writer. But he’s also quite good at finding people, whether or not they want to be found. And that’s what Clarissa Ulrich hires him to do. She hasn’t heard from her Uncle Claus in several months, and she’s concerned about him. Rafferty agrees to look into the matter and starts to ask questions. The trail leads to an intimidating, enigmatic older woman named Madame Wing. She agrees to give Rafferty some of the information he needs. But this comes with a price. He must agree to do a job for her. Madame Wing claims that some valuable property has been stolen from her. She wants Rafferty to find that property, and to locate the man who stole it. Rafferty needs the information Madame Wing has, so he agrees. This adds another case to his burden, and a great deal more danger to his investigation.

Fictional detectives often need information that others might be unwilling to provide. And sometimes, they make all sorts of arrangements to get it. These are only a few examples. I know you’ll think of lots more.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Master of the House.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Michael Connelly, Stieg Larsson, Thomas Harris, Timothy Hallinan

Well, It Seems So Real*

One of the traditional maxims of writing is to ‘write what you know.’ And there’s certainly a lot to be said for that. Readers want a sense of authenticity in their stories, and that’s just as true of a story’s setting as it is anything else. So, does that mean that an author shouldn’t write about a different place or time, even a different country?

No. Many authors set their stories in places other than their own countries or in different times. And those stories are often absorbing, engaging, and authentic. There are a lot of examples of this sort of series. I’ll just mention a few.

Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels take place mostly in the fictional English village of Bishop’s Lacey. Flavia, who is eleven at the time the series begins (with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie), lives there with her father and two older sisters, Ophelia ‘Feely’ and Daphne ‘Daffy.’ Also very much a part of the family is her father’s factotum, Arthur Dogger. The novels have a strong sense of place and time (the 1950s). And the village itself is an important part of the series. And yet, Bradley isn’t English; he’s Canadian by birth and upbringing, although he now lives on the Isle of Man. But, as Bradley himself has said,


‘I grew up in a family of British expat storytellers who never tired of spinning stories about “back ’ome.” 


And that was at the core of Bradley’s interest in writing about England.

Sometimes, authors write about places they have lived, even if those places are not their home countries. That’s the case with Angela Savage, who writes the Jayne Keeney series. Keeney is an ex-pat Australian PI who now lives and works in Bangkok. She travels to different parts of Thailand in connection with her investigations, so readers get a chance to see different regions of the country. Savage is Australian, based in Melbourne, but she lived in Southeast Asia, including Bangkok, for six years. She’s also a skilled researcher who checks the accuracy of what she writes. And that’s important if one’s writing about a country with a very different language, culture and set of social expectations. Interestingly, Savage chose to make Keeney an Australian by birth, which adds to the authenticity of the stories as Keeney sometimes looks at the Thai culture ‘from the outside.’

>A similar thing might be said of Savage’s partner, Andrew Nette. One of his novels, Ghost Money, is set mostly in Cambodia. In it, Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan is hired to find a man named Charles Avery, who was last seen in Bangkok. Quinlan agrees to the job and begins to follow the trail, which soon leads to Phnom Penh. Later, the action moves to the northern part of Cambodia. Throughout the novel, there’s a vivid portrait of life in that country. Like his partner, Nette is Australian, based in Melbourne. But he’s lived in Asia, where he was a journalist there for seven years. That experience has arguably added to the authenticity of the story, even though Cambodia has a very different culture and language.

Fans of Deborah Crombie will know that she is American, born and raised in Texas. She got the chance to go to the UK after graduating university and fell in love with the place. She lived there for several years, until moving back to Texas. So it’s little wonder that her Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James novels take place in the UK, mostly in London. Both Kincaid and James work for the Met, where Kincaid is a Superintendent and James is a Detective Inspector (DI). They are partners in life, too, and the series follows their relationship and family as well as the cases they investigate. Crombie travels to the UK several times a year, and her connection adds to the authenticity of this series.

There are other authors, too, such as Timothy Hallinan and John Burdett, who spend quite a lot of time in the countries where their series are set (in these two cases, Bangkok). And that adds a lot of authenticity to what they write. But there’s more to authenticity of place than that.

There’s also research. K.B. Owen, for instance, sets her Concordia Wells series mostly in Connecticut at the very end of the 19th Century. In order to make this series ‘feel’ authentic, Owen has done quite a lot of research on life at that time. And I know you could think of many other authors, too, who write historical series that seem authentic. They do their ‘homework’ to ensure that their stories ring true.

How do you feel about this? Do you get a sense of authenticity from a story even if the author doesn’t live in the place or time where the story is set? If you’re a writer, do you write about places and times you haven’t experienced? How do you make it all authentic?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Buzzcocks’ Why Can’t I Touch It?


Filed under Alan Bradley, Andrew Nette, Angela Savage, Deborah Crombie, John Burdett, K.B. Owen, Timothy Hallinan

They’ll Be There Calling Me ‘Baby’…Maybe*

When a young person’s parents can’t or won’t provide a safe and appropriate living environment, that child is sometimes made a ward of the state. This often means the child goes to a foster home or series of foster homes, and is supposed to be monitored by a social services agency. It’s not at all an ideal solution, but it can be better than living with a parent who’s addicted to drugs, or who abuses the child, or who needs intense and ongoing mental health care. Young people who spend time in ‘the system’ need to develop a tough exterior, and things can be difficult for them. Sometimes, their lives work out well; sometimes they don’t.  Either way, such children can make interesting characters.

There are plenty of them in crime fiction, too. For instance, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is a product of the ‘the system.’ He’s the son of a prominent lawyer and a prostitute. Since his father wasn’t a part of his life until he was an adult, he spent his early childhood with his mother. Then, when she was murdered, he became a ward of the state, and spent much of his time in foster care, orphanages, and other institutions. Those experiences have definitely impacted Bosch’s life, and given him a different outlook on life to the one he might have had if he’d grown up in a stable home.

In C.J. Box’s Open Season, we are introduced to Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett. Shortly after the novel begins, he has an encounter with a local poacher, Ote Keeley. It doesn’t go well for Pickett. A few months later, Keeley’s body turns up near the Picketts’ own woodpile, and Pickett is drawn into the mystery of who killed the victim and why. When Keeley’s daughter, April, is abandoned by her mother (that story arc appears in a few of the novels), the Pickett family takes her in. Officially, she’s a ward of the state, but the Picketts see her as their adopted daughter. She adjusts to life with her new family, but, as fans of Winterkill and Below Zero know, things do not magically turn out all right for her.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe is the owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Botswana’s only female-owned private investigation agency. At the beginning of the series, her focus is on her work. Everything changes when her then-fiancé, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, takes in two foster children, Motholeli and her brother Puso. They’ve lived at the local orphanage as wards of the state since their parents died, and are doing well enough. But Mma Silvia Potokwane, who runs the orphanage, wants them placed in a good home. She persuades Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to take the children, and at first, Mma Ramotswe isn’t too pleased that all of this happened without her knowledge. But she takes to the children, and they to her. And in the end, these children find a safe and caring new home.

So does former Bangkok street child Miaow, whom we meet in Timothy Hallianan’s A Nail Through the Heart. Ex-pat American Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty has taken Miaow in as a foster child, and his doing his best to care for her, with the help of his partner, Rose. It’s not always easy, because Miaow has her own trauma and ‘baggage.’ But she’s doing well – much better than she would if she’d stayed on the streets. Rafferty wants to adopt her legally; and, as the series goes on, we see what it’s like when children who are wards of the state go through the adoption process.

And then there’s Caroline Overington’s Sisters of Mercy.  In one interesting plot thread of this novel, we learn about a woman named Agnes Moore. Born in England, she was sent to an orphanage as a ward of the state when her parents were believed to be among the war dead (of World War II). After the war, she and many other British children were sent to Australia. Agnes stayed at a place called Fairbridge Farm, where she had a good experience. Later, she grew up, returned to England, and married and had a family. What she was never told, though, was that her parents weren’t dead. They were listed as dead in error, but they survived the war. When they found that Agnes had been sent to Australia, they went there, too, and had a second child, Sally ‘Snow.’ Agnes later discovered she had an Australian family, and the novel begins as she goes back to Australia to try to connect with her sister and, if possible, her parents. Instead, she goes missing. Her daughter, Ruby, wants the truth about what happened to her mother. Journalist Jack ‘Tap’ Fawcett is covering the story in a professional but not particularly interested way. His curiosity is piqued, though, when he learns why Agnes was in Australia. He starts to write stories about the family, and begins receiving letters from Snow, who’s now in prison for a crime that is revealed as the story goes on. She, too, has had experiences with the fostering system, ‘though from a very different perspective. Now thoroughly interested, Fawcett follows the history of both sisters, and it’s fascinating to see how differently they turned out.

Being in foster care – in ‘the system’ – doesn’t have to sentence a child to a miserable life. But it is a difficult situation, and many authorities try to avoid it if possible. It does make for some interesting plot points and characters, though.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Charles Strouse and Martin Charinin’s Maybe.



Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, C.J. Box, Caroline Overington, Michael Connelly, Timothy Hallinan

In Loyalty to Our Kind*

In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot solves the stabbing murder of wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett. The victim is killed on the second night of a three-day trip across Europe on the famous Orient Express, and the only possible suspects are the other passengers in the same car. One of those passengers is Princess Natalia Dragomiroff, a formidable elderly lady whose strength is in her personality. At one point in the story, she has this to say:

‘‘I believe…in loyalty – to one’s friends and one’s family and one’s caste.’’

She’s not alone. Being loyal to the members of one’s group is a highly-valued trait, and that makes sense if you think about it. People depend on other group members for a lot, including, at times, survival. So, it’s important that groups stick together, as the saying goes. And there are sometimes very severe penalties for breaking that rule. Loyalty matters, but it can sometimes go too far, and that can make for an interesting layer of character development in a crime novel. It can also allow for plot points.

For example, one of the cardinal rules of the Mafia and of other criminal groups is what the Mafia has called omerta – silence. Every member is expected to keep quiet about the group’s activities, or about anyone else who might be involved. That’s how one proves loyalty to the group. We see that, for instance, in Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas. In that novel, Fred and Maggie Blake and their two children move from the US to a small town in Normandy. The four settle in and begin the process of getting used to an entirely new culture.  But all is not as it seems. ‘Fred Blake’ is really Giovanni Manzini, a former member of the New Jersey Mob, who testified against his fellow mobsters in court. Now, he and his family are in the US Witness Protection Program, and have been resettled in Normandy for their own protection. The plan is successful enough, until word of the Manzini family’s whereabouts accidentally gets back to New Jersey. Now, Manzini could very well pay a terrible price for his disloyalty.

Police officers depend on each other, sometimes for their lives. That’s one reason why there’s such a premium placed on loyalty to other officers. In many cases, that’s part of the ‘glue’ that holds the force together. But this loyalty, too, can be taken too far. In Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, for instance, we are introduced to Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police. One afternoon, he is called to the scene of a home invasion. With him, he takes probationer Lucy Howard. They’re investigating at the house when White is stabbed to death. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who already has a history with local law enforcement. The other officers are loyal to White, and want to mete out their own kind of justice. But the media is paying very close attention to this case, and everyone knows that if they don’t do everything exactly ‘by the book,’ there’ll be a lot of trouble. It’s all complicated by the fact that Rowley is part Aboriginal. All of the police know that the least misstep on their part will lead to accusations of racism. It’s clear throughout the novel, though, that loyalty to each other and to White impacts all of their choices. There are many other crime novels, too, where loyalty to other police officers comes into play (I’m thinking, for instance, of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential and David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight). This is part of the reason for which so many police officers are biased against Internal Affairs and other internal investigation groups.

There’s also the tendency for people in elite groups to protect themselves and one another. We see this, for instance, in the work of Qiu Xiaolong. His Chief Inspector Chen Cao lives and works in Shanghai at the end of the 1990’s/beginning of the 21st Century. Chen is respected, and has an important position within his police department. However, he isn’t at the very top of the proverbial tree. That place is reserved for the elite of the Party – the High Cadre people. Those individuals make all of the important decisions, and displeasing them can lead to the end of a career, or sometimes worse. High Cadre families are loyal to each other and protect one another, and would far rather police themselves than have independent investigators look into their business. Chen is very well aware of the power the High Cadre people have, and their tendency to be loyal to their sociopolitical group. So, when his investigations lead to high places, as they often do, Chen has to move very carefully.

And then there’s family loyalty. Most of us would agree that being loyal to one’s family is a highly valued trait. In crime series such as Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty novels, we see this loyalty in action. Rafferty is a ‘rough travel’ writer who lives and works in Bangkok. He also happens to be very good at finding people who don’t want to be found. That’s why he’s in demand when people are looking for someone in hiding. Rafferty’s married to Rose, a former bar girl who now owns an apartment cleaning company. Rose loves her husband and adopted daughter, Miaow. But she is very loyal to her family of origin. Here’s what she says about it to Rafferty:

‘She [Rose] turns to face him. ‘We have ten dollars left,’ she says. Her voice is so low he has to strain to hear it. ‘Miaow is hungry. My little sister up north is hungry. Who gets the ten dollars? … I would send the money to my sister,’ Rose says. ‘Without a minute’s thought.’’

Of course, family loyalty can create all sorts of obstacles to criminal investigation, too. In many crime novels, people don’t want to talk to the police about their siblings/parents/cousins/etc., because those people are family members.

But that’s the thing about loyalty. Like most other human traits, it’s a proverbial double-edged sword. It’s valuable to an extent, and in many situations. On the other hand, it can also be tragic.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jefferson Airplane’s Crown of Creation.  


Filed under Agatha Christie, David Whish-Wilson, James Ellroy, Qiu Xiaolong, Timothy Hallinan, Tonino Benacquista, Y.A. Erskine

I Heard it Through the Grapevine*

How do you decide which mechanic to use? Where to bank? Where to go to eat? You can’t rely completely on advertisements, of course. Even if you could, it wouldn’t be possible to absorb every ad from every company. So, many people depend on what they hear from friends, colleagues and acquaintances.

Today’s word of mouth is often online, through sites such as Yelp and other rating services. But even in the days before such options, people used word of mouth to find out about other people and about businesses. Businesses depend on it, too (how often have you been asked to rate a business’ service, or ‘like’ it on Facebook?).

Word of mouth plays important roles in crime fiction, too. That’s how many fictional PIs develop a reputation. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot had a distinguished career with the Belgian police. And he’s solved any number of difficult cases since then. But it’s still word of mouth that opens doors for him. In stories such as Death on the Nile, Evil Under the Sun, and Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), he is deemed ‘one of us’ because his reputation precedes him. People in high places talk to their friends, who are also in high places. Those people talk to others, and so it goes. He’s even ‘forgiven’ for being a foreigner because of that word of mouth.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins isn’t, at least at first, a licensed PI. But he knows a lot of people in the Los Angeles area where he lives. And he fits in there; he’s part of the fabric of the area, so to speak. And people have learned that he’s the man to go to if you want to find someone who doesn’t want to be found. He doesn’t put ads in newspapers, or put up flyers. Rather, people hear about him from friends who know friends who know…

The same is true, really, for other ‘unofficial’ PIs. For instance, Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty is an ex-pat American who lives and works in Bangkok. By profession he’s a ‘rough travel’ writer. But he also has a knack for finding people who don’t want to be found. And he speaks both Thai and English. Word about him has gotten about, so that sometimes, complete strangers start asking around for him. And I’m sure you can think of other ‘unofficial’ PIs, too, where this happens.

Word of mouth works especially well when what you do can’t be easily described. For example, Anya Lipska’s Janusz Kiszka is a Polish émigré to London. He does have a ‘day job,’ but more than that, he’s known in the Polish community as a ‘fixer’ – a man who can get things done. That might include helping with complicated paperwork, getting someone a job, finding someone who’s gone missing, ‘making arrangements’ with people who owe money, and so on. He’s earned respect in his community, and he knows most of the members of it. But there really isn’t a job description or official title that accurately describes what he does. People know about him because he’s helped a cousin. Or a friend. Or…

Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant is actually a licensed PI. So, in that sense, it’s not that hard for him to advertise his business. He also happens to be gay, and is an active part of Saskatoon’s gay community. And, in Tapas on the Ramblas, that’s exactly why he is hired. Wealthy business tycoon Charity Wiser is convinced that someone in her family is trying to kill her. So, she hires Quant to find out who that person is. She invites Quant to accompany the family on a cruise, so that he can ‘vet’ the various family members; he soon discovers that this is a gay cruise, and that his client hired him because he’s gay. Quant goes along with her plan, only to find that there’s much more to this than he thought. What’s supposed to be a sort of work/vacation cruise turns out to be fraught with danger – and ends up in murder. Quant doesn’t specifically advertise his orientation. Instead, word gets around that he’s gay.

People also use word of mouth when what they want to get or do isn’t exactly legal. For example, in William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, Glasgow DI Jack Laidlaw is faced with a horrible case. Eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawson has been raped and murdered, and her body found in Kelvingrove Park. There’s very little evidence to go on, and there aren’t any obvious suspects. But Laidlaw knows that, in most murder cases, someone has seen something. It’s a matter of finding out who saw what. The problem is that there are plenty of people who do not want to talk to the police. Laidlaw finds a way around that, though. He and his assistant, DC Brian Harkness, track down a man named John Rhodes. He’s unofficially in charge of the part of Glasgow where the murder occurred, and he wields quite a lot of power there. If he wants something to happen, it happens. And he’s not afraid to get violent if that’s what it takes. He’s not any happier about Jennifer Lawson’s murder than the police are, and he certainly didn’t sanction it. To Rhodes, women and children are strictly off-limits when it comes to ‘conducting business.’ So, he puts the word out, and his assistance proves to be very helpful. Fans of Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow trilogy will know that word of mouth plays a big role in those novels, too. After all, you can’t really easily advertise your services as a professional killer…

Whatever one’s selling, word of mouth is often an effective way to get the word out. It certainly is in real life. And it is in crime fiction, too. Now, if you enjoyed this post, please feel free to ‘like’ it on Facebook, mention it on Yelp…


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Anya Lipska, Hilary Mantel, Malcolm Mackay, Timothy Hallinan, Walter Mosley, William McIlvanney